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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

“A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918”, by Robert A. Kann


646 pages, Barnes & Noble Books, ISBN-13: 978-0760710005

As dry as the Sahara and almost as lifeless is how I would most succinctly characterize A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918 by Robert A. Kann, who was a Viennese Professor of History and a recognized authority in his field who taught at several American universities during his career. But this book is a long, tedious study of what should be an exciting, dramatic story. While Kann clearly has great expertise and has mastered his material, his presentation suffers from a critique he himself offered of a Czech historian, Anton Gindely: “His sovereign command of sources was not entirely matched by originality of thought and stimulating presentation”. The text appears to be more of a historiological study of German-language books about the subject matter than a narrative chronicle of an enormous and complex multiethnic empire that survived against the odds for four centuries. One example: the author refers on 15 occasions to the Battle of White Mountain outside of Prague, but he never describes what actually happened; instead, he talks about how things changed as a result of this battle, which he refers to as decisive, important and historic. Another complaint is that about two-thirds of the book is on the period after 1740, and maybe half of the section is about Franz-Josef’s reign alone. It would seem that Kann mainly cared about the various “liberal” reforms that attempted to modernize and keep the Habsburg reams together and concentrates on this throughout the entirety of the book (perhaps this is why he such short-shrift to the early Habsburgs, because they weren’t evolved in liberal reform?) The other main problem with the book is that it isn’t very clearly written, with the format being a discussion of the various political, social, and cultural histories of each period; but someone who doesn’t know the history of the times will have difficulties following the line of reasoning. Kann is to be commended for including chapters on cultural issues, but he spends a great deal of time on novelists and dramatists who are unknown to all but a handful of the English-speaking community. The book only really shines when the author offers his own personal views, but this happens all too seldom.

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